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Boyfriend of Nine Years Refuses to Marry

QUESTION: I have been in a relationship with the same guy for nine years. About six years ago, we considered marriage but decided to postpone it until we were older. I am ready now. Now he says he is not sure if he believes in the institution. His parents divorced when he was about 21 ... which also happens to be when we decided to wait. Although he knows that his parents are better off, their divorce has really affected our relationship. There is no "we" anymore. We have talked about this at great length, expressing our feelings openly and honestly. When I ask him if "we" are going to get through this, he says "yes, we are." How can I help him see the benefits of marriage -- or should I just wait and hope?

ANSWER: It was inevitable that your boyfriend's blueprints for marital interaction would be affected by what he witnessed in his parents' relationship. But experiencing your parents' divorce can also be beneficial to developing an independent model for healthy partnership. In fact, Judith Wallerstein noted in her book "The Good Marriage" that adults who came from divorced families were often able to forge more satisfying relationships than those whose families remained intact, presumably because of the consciousapproach they took to creating their own partnerships. Unconscious modeling of dysfunctional patterns is more likely to recur when the partners have not examined their respective parental blueprints. Examination of the past is necessary in order to separate what you like and want to keep from what you don't like and would rather throw out!

The good news is that your boyfriend is aware of the negativity of his parents' marriage. But he has yet to recover from the pain their relationship caused him. Any conflict reminds him of Mom and Dad!

A key element to success in any marriage is the ability to effectively resolve conflict. Communication skills which encourage rather than truncate discussions are necessary tools for negotiating and understanding one another. Another critical element to happy marriages is the presence of empathy in the relationship. Being understood and feeling that your partner listens to you contributes enormously to the natural evolution of problem-solving required in all partnerships.

It could prove beneficial for your boyfriend to engage in individual counseling, or for the two of you to attend couples' counseling with the goal of sorting through and establishing your independent vision of a "good" marriage.

Present these ideas to your boyfriend for consideration. Gauge his response. Prepare yourself for the possibility that your boyfriend may be committed to repeating his parents' pattern of staying in a long-term relationship without resolving conflict. If this is the case, it may be necessary to reassess your own commitment to the relationship before it becomes detrimental to you.

Be willing to work on the relationship if there's potential, but be willing to separate if it becomes clear that your boyfriend cannot participate in a positive vision of marriage. The next few months will tell whether you need to take the next step together -- or apart. Work with your partner, but do not sacrifice yourself in the process. Martyrdom only assures the slow death of any relationship!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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